[Viewpoint] Pondering the new political option

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[Viewpoint] Pondering the new political option

The biggest question in regard to the sudden emergence of Kim Jong-un is whether this 20-something fatso with a sullen expression will truly make it to the throne of Pyongyang. And why not? For how I came to this conclusion, let’s take a look into the structural and personnel changes within the Workers’ Party meeting.

The first thing you learn about North Korean politics is that it’s system is under one-man rule, in which power is based in three administrative bodies: the party, the cabinet and the military. Much has changed since Kim Jong-il took the lead 15 years ago. If the power proportion between the party, the cabinet and the military was 2:1:1 in the past, it is closer to 0.5:0.5:2 these days, all thanks to the dear leader’s military-first policy. Almost all major decisions came to be made by the National Defense Commission. At the latest representative meeting, this power balance was rearranged once more, from the unipolar system led by the army, to a dual system that grants new authority to the ruling party. Kim Jong-il made it possible by injecting the big shot — army leaders and old veterans — into the party. He also placed leaders of the local parties and elders of the cabinet back into the party as well.

This resulted in an interesting outcome. The party regained its power but only by being “militarized.” Although it would be too much to presume that the military will be in full control of the army through the latest change, it is obvious that the line has blurred considerably between the party and the military, as a result of Kim’s efforts to create a favorable political environment for his son.

Without much surprise, it’s Kim
Jong-un who stood out the most at the latest meeting for the party representatives. The junior Kim made his grand debut with three big titles: daejang, (equivalent to a four-star general) the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a member of the party’s Central Committee.

Then, there was Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the general staff of the army, and First Vice Director Kim Kyong-ok of the Organization Guidance Department, who was also placed as the party’s Central Military Commission heir-apparent. This indicates that the junior Kim has acquired the first major key to take over the military.

Only two bodies have the authority to control the North’s military. One is the Workers’ Party, the other is the general staff of the Korean Army.

Ri and Kim are the two head figures who hold the key to their respective fields. Assisted by the two, it’s likely that junior Kim will go on to widen his influence, luring more military officials in their 50s and 60s to his side with promotions and other hopeful promises.

We should pay close attention to Ri, who turned 68 this year. Already appointed as vice chairman to the Central Military Commission, he was also made a member of the Presidium of the Politburo. We can see that it is Ri who stands at the axis of the most influential group in the state and the likely candidate to play the most pivotal role in solidifying junior Kim’s position in the future. Just wait and see, because Kim Jong-il, the current leader, will pave the path of succession for his son through Ri’s authority for next two to three years.

But once again, will Kim Jong-un finally make it to the throne? I have my doubts. But after watching the proceedings of the recent party representative’s meeting — the first in 44 years — the young successor has a 70 percent chance of reaching the goal.

The reason is obvious. The elements that support Kim Jong-un’s path to the throne are much stronger than the elements that obstruct his path.

For example, junior Kim’s weakness is apparent when it comes down to his age, his lack of military experience and no particular achievements in the past. But his biggest political asset — his father, the dear leader — exceeds all those negatives.

His father isn’t only the most powerful man in the country, but is also passing his throne to his son. Now that we look back, we can see that North Korea has been preparing this for quite some time, at least for two years. Armed with the most powerful leader, state officials and military personnel, what else could be there to stop him?

The only variable may be the health of his father, Kim Jong-il. For example (using some imagination) if the current dear leader dies within two or three years, his brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek or other top military figures may push his son aside to take over the Stalinist state.

But even if that becomes the case, I don’t think even that would trigger any radical change. That’s because the three powers — the party, the cabinet and the military — all work in concert with mutual interest. Simply put, they want Kim Jong-un to take the helm because that will be to their benefit, both politically and individually.

At this point any chance for a coup is pretty much out the window, not when the party, the cabinet and the military have their roles overlapped.

For a coup to succeed, the components must contain an element of surprise at all cost before making a final blow to the existing administration. That’s going to be extremely tricky, especially when all three reigning powers will gear up their network and security system simultaneously.

So my answer is yes. There’s a good chance that this overweight young man will emerge as the next successor of the Stalinist state, sending Washington and Seoul to ponder a new political option. Let’s find out what new changes Kim Jong-un can evoke in Seoul and Washington.

*The writer is a North Korea specialist in Washington, D.C. and a former JoongAng Ilbo reporter.


By Brent Choi
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